- The Washington Times - Monday, December 21, 2009

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The snowstorm that blanketed the East Coast, closing malls and snowing in shoppers, spelled trouble for retailers, but elsewhere in the country stores saw a strong turnout on the last weekend before Christmas.

Eager to win business from snowed-in Easterners, retail Web sites including Macy’s and J.C. Penney were offering free express shipping Sunday. Traffic to retail Web sites spiked all weekend. Elsewhere in the country, crowds looking for discounts found some, but far less than the 60-percent- to 70-percent-off sales they wanted.

Retailers head into the homestretch hoping the storm leaves pent-up demand that will give them one last gift.

A snowstorm the Saturday before Christmas, often the busiest shopping day of the year, is about as bad as it gets for retailers, said Marshal Cohen, chief retail industry analyst at market researcher NPD Group. But there’s still time.

“If they’re not buying it online, they’ve got a plan to go out now when they do get dug out,” Mr. Cohen said. “They’ll hit the stores with a little more of a method to their madness, so all is not lost.”

“Super Saturday” usually accounts for $15 billion worth of sales nationwide, said Scott Bernhardt of weather research firm Planalytics. Stores certainly did not hit that number this year, though Mr. Bernhardt said he wasn’t sure by how much they missed it.

Retailers on Sunday were still totaling the impact of the snowstorm. The first hard estimates are due from ShopperTrak on Tuesday.

The storm that stretched from the Carolinas to New England caused about one-third of Toys R Us stores to cut hours, but sales weren’t as bad as expected because people got out to shop before the storm hit, Chief Executive Officer Gerald Storch said. Online sales also rose.

He said retailers had been expecting a big shopping burst this week, but with the storm, it will be even more frenzied, so the toy-store chain is increasing staffing.

“There’s always that feeling, ‘Oh I could just do it tomorrow’ when Christmas is at the end of the week,” he said of shoppers. “Now you add in this storm.”

Shoppers who stayed home drove a big spike in online shopping. Retail Web traffic peaked at 2.9 million visitors Saturday night, according to the Akamai Retail Net Usage Index. That was up from 1.9 million on the Saturday before Christmas in 2008.

Online spending remains a bright spot. Online sales grew 14.4 percent after Black Friday through Dec. 12, according to a release Sunday from MasterCard Advisors’ SpendingPulse, which estimates sales in all payment forms, including cash and checks.

Data from MasterCard Advisors’ SpendingPulse shows that most holiday sectors, including online sales, footwear and men’s apparel, have registered improving growth rates since the Thanksgiving weekend, after merchants struggled with weak sales earlier in November. However, women’s apparel and luxury, excluding jewelry, remain challenging despite a slight pickup in December, while consumer electronics sales showed slower growth.

Beyond the Northeast, store traffic was up at malls owned by General Growth Properties Inc. and should stay heightened through Thursday, said Wally Brewster, senior vice president for marketing and communications. The company, which has more than 220 malls, figures about half of its shoppers are last-minute ones, up 10 percent from last year.

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